Peaches for Father Frances by Joanne Harris

Vianne Rocher is living in Paris with her daughters Anouk and Rosette, when the past reaches her in the form of a letter from a very dear, but very dead friend, asking her to check in on Lansquenet, the village where they once lived. In particular, Vianne is asked to determine whether Father Frances Reynaud, a former adversary, needs help for which he may be too proud to ask. Feeling restless, and trapped by the stifling heat of Paris in August, Vianne packs up her children for a short holiday in her former town. Though she arrives with no plans to stay, Vianne finds it increasingly difficult to detach herself from a much changed Lansquenet. Most disturbingly everyone seems enthralled by the “woman in black”, a shrouded figure of mysterious origins.

Peaches for Father Frances is Joann Harris’ third installment in a series of books following the irrepressible, and magical, free spirit Vianne Rocher. The first of these novels was Chocolat, which was made into a movie of the same name starring Julie Delpy and Johnny Depp. The title and cover of this latest novel suggests a whimsical and fanciful tale, and those elements are included in the beautiful depictions of the charming village, its quirky neighbors, and its mouthwatering descriptions of simply prepared meals, and chocolate – Vianne’s specialty.

This charming tableau draws the reader in, but Peaches for Father Frances is also a carefully constructed, thought-provoking novel exploring faith, the personal meaning and ways of worship, and the evolution of  fellowship and religion in a community struggling to endure tensions between Muslims and Christians. Lansquenet seems to become smaller as the formerly tiny Muslim population increases and seems to threaten the town’s citizens and traditions. Harris’s commitment to exploring the faith and perspectives of both sides through her fully vibrant characters and surprising plots make this a delightfully absorbing read. Vianne sets about working her magic with her neighborly chats and chocolate treats but it remains to be seen whether it is too little and much too late.

Peaches For Father Frances is the latest in the exploits of Vianne Rocher, but readers interested in the dynamics of faith in a small town will have no trouble reading this work as a standalone. Additionally, it piques enough interest in these characters that  other novels in the collection will be of interest as well.  Highly recommended.

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